To put it mildly: we’ve got a damn good thing going here in the United States. Citizens of our country enjoy an unprecedented range of political and social privileges (too much, maybe— the freedom is almost stifling) and we can reasonably expect to be in good spirits and health.
Our commitment to the principles of a democratic society, as outlined for example in the Constitution, has been crucial for the development of this good fortune. Respecting the will of the people, securing personal liberties, and similar American values have contributed greatly to our society’s progress.
But this progress may not be on an upward trend. At a recent conference of the International Society for Political Psychologists, political scientist Shawn Rosenberg proposed that the great experiment of democracy is doomed to fail — and that we’re seeing the initial stages of this downfall today. This is all because the principles of democracy are succumbing to the rise of populism.
Today’s article will review Rosenberg’s argument and examine it in more detail. Why does he believe populism threatens the future of our democracy? And can anything be done to steer us in the right direction?
Populism hijacks democracy
Democratic governments have flourished in the modern era. Despite this, we’ve recently observed a phenomenon of democratic backsliding: general trends away from the principles of a liberal democracy. This diversion is coming from both the left and the right, and according to Rosenberg it consists of the rise of populism.
Populism refers to a broad category of political movements that all share one crucial strategy. They claim to be in support of the ‘popular will’: the desires of those within a certain group — whether it be racial, religious, or social — who are considered the authentic people. The rest of society is relegated as the other, and is said to be made up of elites who are typically opposed to the popular will for selfish and evil reasons.
By making this distinction, populism undermines democracy. It claims to be the voice of the people, but cleverly shifts the definition of the people. Under this regime many anti-democratic measured can be taken, like the suppression of a free and open media and the disenfranchisement of entire groups. It’s just enough for people to feel that the victims of those measures are not the authentic people.
A crisis of values
According to Rosenberg, the rise of populism is a symptom of problems inherent to the democratic system. A functional democracy needs its citizens to be educated, respect a plurality of opinions, commit to certain basic values, and so on. But it also supplies the public with the basic tools necessary to oppose those values.
The phenomenon of fake news, for example, could only exist in a society where information is free and open. People should be able to read whatever they want in a liberal democratic society. But this comes with the condition that they are being diligent in their treatment of the truth. When this condition is not met, democracy gives the very fuel for its own demise by opening up the possibility of fake news.
This paradox, Rosenberg says, comes from an innate problem with us, as citizens. Our innate psychologies — with all its heuristics, irrational decisions, biases, and so on — don’t favor the qualities needed of a person to commit to democratic principles. We will fall again and again to the incitement of easy political fixes, in some cases, whether or not they’re founded in truth.
So then, how did democracy ever work? Because — and here is where Rosenberg gets controversial — elites have always been in charge. This group, which we might list as senators, journalists, scientists, professors, and judges, have always been responsible for a certain degree of credible information, positive value judgements, and so on. Accordingly, society has always emulated them and sought them for solutions to our social, cultural, and scientific problems. But now that people are beginning to doubt these sources — the phenomena of anti-vaccination and flat earth should be enough to convince us of this — the dangers of anti-democratic ideologies have risen.
So, what’s the solution to this problem that knows no political bounds? In this sense, Rosenberg is a pessimism. His conclusion is the rather fatalistic one that all we can do is prepare for an impending crisis. Whatever happens, democracy will not be the same as when it began.
And that is where he leaves us, but maybe some of us might take a more hopeful path.